At the moment, she seemed oblivious to his presence, and he stared at her for several seconds, taking in her straight, firmly-held posture, arms forward and raised high, to rest on the top of the strange equipment, showing her slim figure, curving into long legs which ended with form- fitting boots whose heels were hooked on the lowest rung of the lab stool she was perkily perched on. She squirmed a bit in her seat, evidently feeling some displeasure about something, though that sight caused him no displeasure....
So unconsciously sensual, and yet... she simply couldn't be unaware of the effect she always seemed to have on him -- and sometimes other men? And the teasing sense of humor she had....
He once tried to obliquely probe the point about her effect on other men. Perhaps it was his so-called Italian jealously, though he'd never admit it; or maybe he was just curious about how she was thinking -- always a wonderfully mysterious subject to explore. Yet on this point, some time back, he had only met with na‘vet», an alien innocence he abruptly found that he didn't want to destroy with heavy-handed jealousy. She had suffered too much, and said so little about it, for him to want to drive her away.
That is what he feared: losing her. Yet, at the same time, he had always had trouble committing himself. It was an old, complex problem, going back far before he even knew of a planet called Psychon.
Maya certainly wasn't any simpler, either. Her own mind, will, fears, and pain -- some of which he knew about, some which she never talked about.
They had both fluttered around each other, seemingly unable to narrow the gap in their relationship, at least not quickly.
He started approaching her now; she finally turned in her seat, looked at him, and smiled.
Other emotions abruptly caught at him now. He had been gone from the base and much more importantly Maya for seven days -- none of which he remembered, except that short period of time after he had materialized on that other Alpha where another Magus had been. Yet, he felt his concerns over Maya had changed drastically. Lately, and despite their deepening relationship, he felt very concerned -- afraid even -- that he could unexpectedly lose her. It wasn't just about Alpha's precarious existence; but about the fact that Maya could have almost any man she wanted, and if she decided he wasn't really serious about wanting her, that he was taking too long and moving too slowly....
He found himself wondering what he had ever been afraid of. Maybe the thought of commitment, even after all these years, made him nervous -- he had never thought himself the "settling" type. Yet, the thought of losing Maya terrified him now.
In a seven-day parting, he felt as if he had lost months in their relationship. They had never been parted for more than just a couple days, so this long separation served to highlight the fact he didn't want there to be any chance of losing her. So now he found himself frozen in front of her, trying to think of something... anything, to say to her -- and finding it wasn't easy to suddenly change his tone -- or tune -- to something deeper, on a moments notice.
He had no idea what Maya was seeing on his face, but her smile turned into that more amused smile he always liked to see. Now, though, it only made him flush for some reason, making him feel embarrassed and exhilarated at the same time, as if finally fully aware that she was aware of him, yet wondering what she found amusing.
Tony remembered the time Maya had first became aware of him, of his curiosity about -- and then attraction to -- her. That had been many hundreds of days ago, many months of teases, feints, humor, and strange games whose purpose usually eluded them when they tried to think too much. And lately: kisses and other signs of affection, more and more open, playful, yet slowly becoming deeper and deeper. Maybe this was Psychon courting. Or did humans play such games too? He found that he could hardly remember. Did it matter? No, it was his and Maya's games. But not games. No. Signs of affection -- love. Unspoken. Words rarely said, or foolishly taken back. Everything taking so long... Was it so long? Long for what? Longing for... an image formed in his mind, an image that was becoming more common--
Something snapped him out of it. What was going on? It was like months of pent-up thoughts and concerns and feelings of isolation from her, all descending on him at once. Intense feelings -- very intense feelings.
Maya was staring at him, that minx-like smile on her face. "What were you doing?" she so sweetly -- and almost innocently -- asked when he made eye contact -- eye contact that he instantly broke, unable to admit, however subtly, what was in the front of his... mind.
"Thinking," he managed to choke out.
"Mmm... you're doing that more often. I think I like it when you think."
Holy Roman.... From barely able to understand the expression "a piece of cake" a few years back, to being able to give sentences replete with double -- triple? -- meanings. Helena's words echoed in his mind, with his own voice, "... she's a quick study." But what was she studying? And who was teaching her? That bit of jealousy, appearing in a nonsensical way.
He became aware that his cheeks were now on fire. She smiled, then turned away. Not a rejection of any sort... just part of the continuing game -- another little tease. It's your turn, she was saying. But be careful, his own mind added, she changes between subtly bold and outwardly timid -- a strange, intoxicating metamorphic mixture, he had realized some time before. His body put one foot in front of the other.
A commlock buzzer -- a killjoy. The curious mood evaporated, though it would hardly be forgotten.
"Yes, Professor," Maya said.
"I've got the scintillator figures, time index 2531.4479 days. Z equals 99.97, Y equals 13.21, gamma equals 1.81-e-positive-27. Alpha-Null is 7- comma-9-comma-47. T-prime equals 4214y. Epsilon-T equals 198y. Multiple boson, triple tau neutrino. Energy index, 9.5 GeV. Got it all?"
"Yes, Victor. Thank you." Maya replaced the commlock to the belt around her trim waist. He noticed that last part, but the previously overwhelming mood had vanished, and she gave no further encouragement of any sort. It was back to business -- at least for her. He took a little longer, much to his own further confusion. Seven days, and this is what happens. I really must--
He became aware of her silent, emotionless stare. He didn't remember how that expression came about, until thinking of all those numbers Victor had rattled off at Maya. She was immersed in mental calculations. After almost a minute, he couldn't stand it anymore, and asked, "So? What does it all mean?"
"Oh, just that we've been all over the place. There seems to be less and less hope that I will ever find every location that every individual got displaced too. The smear that was many different versions of Sandra jumping at the same time interferes with the whole picture. She blocks much of the view."
"Don't let her hear that, or she'll think your saying she's fat."
"Fat? Sahn? I do not understand."
"Figure it out," he said with a smile.
She sat there for a number of seconds, and then her brow furrowed, introducing lines. That little angular one intersecting her left eyebrow was a key indicator that she was not thinking about Sahn or his little -- admittedly silly -- joke. "What is it?"
"You..." she started with a stunned voice.
"No, it couldn't be..."
"What?" he demanded more insistently.
Before Maya could offer Tony an answer, the lab door swept open, admitting John, Helena, Victor, and Alan. The first two found comfortable seats, while the others hunted up some taller stools, like the one Maya was perched on. Tony remained standing. It was a meeting that had been scheduled a few hours before -- a meeting he had completely forgotten about.
For a few minutes, they rehashed aspects of their experiences.
Koenig was concerned, because most of the other returnees didn't remember a thing. He was running the Science and Medical divisions ragged for answers. Maya, for her part, didn't have all of them yet and had wanted to wait; but half-answers were better than none, he had said. Maya wasn't so sure. The last time she had given partial answers and educated guesses, the commander had insulted her in front of everyone, precipitating an ugly incident; though his later apology showed that he was aware -- or had been made aware -- of his excessively overbearing manner.
"What did you just find?" the commander asked pointedly, having seen the look of surprise and shock on Maya's face when he entered. He wanted her first thoughts on whatever she had found.
"I've been trying to balance the equations, to put it in simple terms, and I stumbled across something interesting," Maya said, looking at Tony apologetically. She had wanted to tell him first. Tony shrugged. He didn't care about that, he just wanted to know.
So did the commander, who -- this time gently -- prompted her: "And how far would Tony have to have gone to balance the equations?"
Maya shook her head, still amazed at what she had found. "There is a form of uncertainty that works in these equations, and the greater the temporal displacement, the higher the uncertainty."
"Then give the range," the commander said, now a bit impatiently. Helena gave him a quick glance, but turned away quickly. John's usual impatience, nothing more.
"One of Tony's jumps had to have been between four thousand and forty- four hundred years into the future."
"You mean days," Tony corrected.
Maya shook her head. "No, Tony. Years."
Tony was flabbergasted. "But... that is.... I don't even remember anything!"
"I thought these were supposed to be balanced transfers," Alan protested. "I remember you saying that to all of us just before everyone went walkabout." Alan paused for a moment, as if turning over the last word in his mind, filing it for future thought, and continuing on. "If Tony went that far into the future, shouldn't someone have been tossed that far into the past?"
"That would seem to be true," Maya admitted. "And perhaps it is. This was an extraordinarily massive event, flinging people all over time and parallel realities. There were enormous variations in everything: mass transfer, time of stay, number of people, total temporal displacement, number of jumps per person. Those are only five of eight major and three minor variables involved. To greatly oversimplify, time started falling apart, then recovered. Finding what constitutes a 'balance' would be virtually impossible, since these indirect readings are poor -- as are people's memories of whatever happened."
She continued, saying she had determined some people's movements, stating that most had jumped only seconds forward or backward in time, or had maybe spent several minutes in neighboring, nearly identical realities. Tony was silent through the rest of it, trying to find some memory that would indicate Maya's hypothesis was actual fact. He couldn't. He simply didn't believe it.
The next day, Maya was in Tony's room. She had stopped by, concerned about how the news had hit him. He seemed to find it impossible to accept what she said had happened to him -- particularly the lack of memory. The lack of memory... Her expression became more concerned. "Did you talk to Helena about your memory?"
"Yeah.... She nodded, mumbled 'hmm...', said 'very intahhresting...' like we were in some B-flick, then ran a whole battery of tests, EEG, CAT scans, all the trash. The results are being processed."
She nodded, satisfied, then frowned. "Helena doesn't talk like that. What do you mean, 'B-flick?'"
"Not sure where I got the idiom; but a 'second-rate movie.' It sounded like something Boris Karloff -- or was it Bugs Bunny? -- would have..." Maya's face instantly filled with more questions, and he headed them off: "Like something a flaky scientist said in a movie, I think."
"You think Helena acts like a... flay... key -- what?"
"Oh, never mind. Better quit while I'm behind."
Tony kissed her lips, which remained closed in puzzlement, then left his own room to return to duty, smiling at how baffled she looked after he had bombarded her with so many earthly references. She had learned how to do double meanings with human expressions; yet he still knew how to trip her up, even if it was becoming a little more difficult. Alpha's computers did not have a dictionary of idiomatic expressions, so Maya had to learn them all the hard way -- and there were thousands. She learned quickly, but not quickly enough to slip by Tony. He smiled. Thank God she's got a sense of humor. Papa would have loved her. Oh, poor Papa.... Come to think of it, Mama would have too. She didn't tolerate any stone-faces either. After a moment, he chuckled, having noticed the lack of his usual disclaimer at the end of any statements that put Maya and his parents in the same sentence: after they got used to her... or after they got over the shock....
Now, it no longer seemed like something that would have interfered, even though a likelier response would have been, "All those Italian girls on that fancy moonbase of yours, and you..." But things had changed, and Maya's alienness didn't matter to him, except in how he enjoyed -- loved? -- those same differences. He loved Maya, everything about her, and had no trouble admitting that to himself, even if he found the actual words difficult to speak aloud. Remembering how he had called his first words of love "wild garbage" only days later, he decided he would correct that problem, and soon.
Would his parents have reacted in a xenophobic manner? Initially, yes, he admitted to himself. Would they eventually have accepted her? His mind was sadly silent on this, though his heart kept trying to say yes. At least he was certain about one thing: they certainly wouldn't have tried to shoot her at first sight. Or was that wishful thinking?
Later, Helena asked John to call Tony, Maya, Alan, Victor, and Sandra in for a meeting. The makeup of the group was not lost on the others when they had all arrived: the only individuals who remembered at least part of their jaunts through time and alternate realities.
Helena launched into her findings. "Ben and I have finished the lab work on our medical workups after our... return... home. Beyond Alan and Maya's healing injuries and John's bruises, there were no other apparent abnormalities -- except for one." The others' attention did not waver from her, and she did not allow the pause to lengthen. "John, Alan, Tony, Maya, and myself have all aged more than can be accounted for in our memories -- significantly so.
"My own readings show one extra week of aging that my memory cannot account for, but the difference is so small it is barely above the error range. The rest of yours are not, however. Alan, you remember two weeks -- fifteen days to be precise -- but you've aged nearly four weeks."
"A month?" he said incredulously. "That can't be right. I don't remember two extra weeks!"
"I double-checked them myself. Aging scans are not very accurate, but accurate enough to be ninety percent certain."
"Ninety percent? That doesn't sound very certain to me."
Helena's voice increased slightly. "Ordinarily, you'd be right. I'd doubt the readings if the difference were only that much, but it's everyone else." Alan was subsided, and Helena went on. "John, you recall twelve days, but aged about six weeks, and that is ninety-six percent certain."
John merely shook his head, indicating his disbelief; but he choose not to voice it.
Helena then turned to Maya. "I know you've been knocked around, but you said you'd been with Alan for all but a few hours, making fifteen days again. Your readings are naturally difficult to read and correlate, for you don't have the same genetic age markers we do, so the certainty drops to seventy percent, but the estimate is sixteen weeks -- over three months."
Maya's immediately protested. "Sixteen weeks? I would have felt that."
"Would you? You still haven't regained your full... metamorphic... senses, so can you be so certain?" Helena argued, then softened her voice when she saw Maya's pained expression. "Sorry, I didn't mean to put it so bluntly. But could you be mistaken?"
Maya smiled in indication of 'apology accepted,' then nodded. "You are right. I have... gaps... in my sense of time. The time warps wreaked havoc. I thought it was just that. It's all so... disturbing."
Helena nodded in sympathy; and after glancing at Maya to see that she was okay, Tony anxiously jumped in, already having sensed the pattern to Helena's numbers: upward. "And me?"
"You only remember being misplaced for four days; but, with ninety-nine- point-seven percent certainty, you aged approximately... five months."
For one of the rare times in his life, Tony was actually silent. The bewildered look he got from Maya only further distracted him from thinking up some wisecrack. No one could believe that they'd aged that much; to have lived through those days, seemingly without having lived those days. To be told that you had lost so many weeks -- and hey, sorry, but you don't get any memories either.
In an almost ridiculous unison, they shook their heads. "I don't believe it," Alan said.
Tony finally found his sharp tongue: "What's not to believe? You only aged an extra week."
"Two, she told me."
"So, she says I aged five months, and I only remember a tiny fraction of that. That's one big hole in my head."
"You said it yourself," Alan said with a smile.
John joined in, "Months out of practice, definitely."
"He left part of his mind behind," Maya said.
"Instead of the warps, it must be cumulative brain damage from drinking his own beer," Helena mused.
Tony gave a sick-sounding laugh, "Oh hardee-har-har. I gave you that opening on purpose."
Everyone laughed in disbelief, except for John. Helena's joke about the warps had triggered an almost dream-like memory in John's mind, of perhaps one of the strangest events amongst an almost infinite number of bizarre events: he and Victor sharing a drink before reaching the Black Sun, then seeing a hundred years of age materialize on each other's faces. "Could we have been aged by the time warps themselves?"
"That might explain the aging, but...." Helena trailed off, looking at Maya.
Maya mistook it as a request for commentary. "It is conceivable that self-contained temporal distortions formed around individual people, even within the larger time displacements we experienced. I'd have to run some computations... but you were getting at some other idea, Helena," Maya realized.
"The aging could be explained away -- maybe. But Maya's injuries are still a problem."
"I thought that was explained," John said. Alan shook his head, but otherwise said nothing.
Helena elaborated. "We thought her head and ribs were injured during Breakaway, but Alan found no loose equipment on her Eagle that could have concussed her head, and her rib injuries were simply not the type -- or in the right place -- to have been caused by being jarred against the restraints. The head wound looked new from the bleeding, but there was evidence that it was a seven-to-ten day-old wound that had been reopened, even though Maya never recalled having it until after Breakaway. I was able to eliminate impact from a blunt object as the original cause, or her head swinging to strike something in the Eagle. There is even some evidence that her skin at the wound site was burned."
"Burned?" Tony said in shock, seemingly more upset about it than Maya herself.
"I can't be sure, since it was partially healed -- and she heals somewhat more rapidly -- and differently -- than us."
"Burned by what?" Maya finally asked, not having heard this before, evidently because Helena had come to the conclusion after analyzing the test results. "A laser?"
"I don't know."
The meeting was meandering into little corners, and since there were no apparent answers on this subject, John changed the subject. "So, we've been buffeted by tachyon storms caused by time rifts. But why did we get hit by so many rifts? What causes them?"
There was only one person to turn to, and Maya found herself in the spotlight.
"I don't know. Psychon science had no answers on the causes of temporal rifts, even though time warps are easy."
"Kind of nice to know that Psychon technology didn't know everything," Tony joked. Victor still thought that Tony's jibes at Maya sounded insulting, but had long since realized the pair shared similar senses of humor.
In any case, Maya had no answer on the ultimate cause of their difficulties, only some details.
Silence descended, until John spoke up. "I saw a copy of myself that was aged beyond his years by stress, personal loss, and surrounding destruction. I still wake up seeing his face, like it was burned in my mind. I don't want to be that person -- ever. I don't care about the hair. I just want to look like I have a spark of life in my eyes. And I want the same for everyone. That base was a dying shambles, described too well by that Omega symbol scrawled as graffiti on a dirty hall in a dusty, quarter- lit hallway. That's the closest I've ever been to hell."
Helena followed. "The people there were like virtual walking dead, like they already had one foot in the grave. I woke up in an abandoned hallway, and thought no one was alive. When I found people, I was happy, but they didn't seem that much more alive."
Alan added his thoughts. "I was struck by the trust I was given by the people I met on the pre-Breakaway Alpha, and how we all depended on each other's efforts -- including those of essential strangers who had good reason to distrust us."
Maya discussed her main impression. "I stayed hidden for so long, not thinking you -- I mean your doppelgängers -- would accept me, since they had never encountered aliens. With one exception, I met acceptance and cautious trust, despite the dangerous circumstances."
Tony broke the solemn mood. "I apparently forgot the most interesting parts of my journey, since Maya said I went four thousand years in the future and Helena said I've been gone for five months. Where'd the time go?"
There was another pause, while everyone wondered about his question, and its implications for everyone.
When no one said anything, Victor finally spoke. "Obviously, we're not going to find the answers immediately." He then joked, "Well, I do know that I experienced the worst case of deja vu in my life." Everyone laughed.
There was another pause, this time broken by Sandra. "I guess anyone can be anybody they want," she said. "I saw parts of so many realities. I think there is something that can be learned from what I saw."
Maya nodded her agreement along with the others. She had learned something of her own race from Sandra, and had thanked the other woman for giving a warning to those Psychons. Perhaps Sandra had help prevent a ship full of good people from sliding into an ugly pattern of evil which had haunted the years before and after Psychon died. Maya would never know. Eralay, I'm so pleased you fared better in another reality, and wish you all happiness, my teacher.
"There was something else," Victor said. "Something more than just getting glimpses at ourselves."
"What?" John asked.
"I think the most important thing we did -- or helped do -- was to make the transfer."
"Transfer? Which one?" Maya asked.
"The one which counted the most: transferring two working Eagles to where they were most needed: a reality whose copies of us were doomed to die without them."
The others looked at each other, startled. They hadn't thought of it in this way. In essence, Alan and Maya had gone to retrieve a couple of Eagles from a reality that would barely miss them, and together with John and Helena, had deeded them to a reality sorely in need of them.
"A tad too convenient," Tony said with his slightly cynical bent.
"No," Helena said, "more like a very complicated way of getting things done."
Victor only raised his eyebrows, hinting at unspoken possibilities.